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A Whale In Vermont? The Story Behind The State's Most Famous Fossil

In 1849, railroad workers in Charlotte found a skeleton that helped piece together Vermont’s geological history.

The unlikely discovery of what’s come to be known as the Charlotte whale, and the scientific boon it lead to,  is chronicled in a new book by Jeff L. Howe called How Do You Get a Whale in Vermont? The Unlikely Story of Vermont’s State Fossil. Howe is the former curator of the Perkins Museum of Geology at the University of Vermont, and he spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb.

Howe said the bones were found while workers were digging the first railroad across Vermont. Interestingly, they were found the summer after a mammoth fossil was discovered as part of the same dig in Mount Holly. The whale was found in a farmer’s field, about 200 miles and two mountain ranges away from the nearest ocean.

“At first it was a huge bafflement, because the two biggest questions in geology at that time where, one: how old is the earth, and two: how did the earth get to look the way that it does?” Howe explained. “It turned out to be something that was really one of the most important paleontological finds in New England of the 19th century.”

Not long after the discovery, Darwin published his theory of evolution. At the time, there was a lot of discussion about the origins of the world.  Lewis Agassiz was the most famous scientist at the time, and he was located in Boston. He’d seen evidence of glacial activity while growing up in the Alps. Agassiz claimed the same thing was going on here in New England.

"They thought it was probably the result of the flood of Noah. So this whale ... made science look at New England and say there's really no other way that these features could be formed than massive glacial activity. So that helped solidify the glacial theory of New England."

“And people didn’t agree with him, they thought it was probably the result of the flood of Noah. So this whale, the mammoth that was found and Louis Agassiz’s participation in the project was the thing that made science look at New England and say there’s really no other way that these features could be formed than massive glacial activity. So that helped solidify the glacial theory of New England," says Howe.

Zadock Thompson, who helped identify the whale, was the state’s greatest observer. He’d identified erratic glacial activity in the mountains, and piles of sorted and unsorted sediment throughout the state. “He’d located beach line, ancient beach lines that contained shell fossils from animals that were very similar to those living in the North Atlantic at the time. To this day, his observations have turned out to be "spot on,” Howe says.

There have been other whale fossils found in Vermont, but the Charlotte whale is the most famous.

“It was the first that was found and it’s probably the best preserved,” Howe said.

The whale was constructed in 1861, as the result of some other catastrophes in Vermont. Specifically, the statehouse burning down in 1857, and at the time the building contained the state’s entire natural history collection. Albert Hager, who was the new state geologist, was commissioned to put together new exhibits.

"We decided that it's more important as a historical specimen than as an anatomical specimen. So it's always remained with its warts and backward facing bones and mismanaged skull."

“He very quickly went to Zadock Thompson’s widow and bought the whale specimen, along with some other specimens for new exhibits, and looked at the whale fossil and realized it was all beat up and wasn’t in a form that anyone could make any sense out of. So he very quickly, with the help of an assistant, patched together the skull with burlap and boot polish and wire and created something that would look interesting to the public. And so when you look at the whale now today, many times people have considered taking it apart and reconstructing it to make it anatomically correct. But we decided that it’s more important as a historical specimen than as an anatomical specimen. So it’s always remained with its warts and backward facing bones and mismanaged skull,” Howe said.  

The whale also survived the flood of 1927. The whale was at the statehouse this time, when again, the state’s entire natural history collection was wiped out. The collection was stored in the basement office of the state geologist. It was inundated and boxes were filled with mud. Howe said it was fun to sort through those boxes when he was curator of the Perkins Museum in the 1990s.

“It was like a treasure hunt.” Howe said.

But there’s still a lot scientists don’t know about the Charlotte whale, including the exact age of the fossil.

“We have assigned an age of 11,500 years due to anecdotal, circumstantial evidence with the sediments. But when Zadock Thompson found the fossil in 1849, one of the first things he did was to slather it with horse glue to keep it from cracking and drying out because it had been preserved in these wet sediments. It did the job at the time. But you’re unable to carbon-14 date the specimen because you’d only be measuring the age of the glue of the horse that donated it,” Howe explained.

Howe was instrumental in helping the whale become the state fossil in the 1990s. There were other fossils suggested, most notably the Mount Holly mammoth.  Some in Mount Holly still want it designated the state terrestrial fossil.

“But the public energy was behind the whale at the time,” Howe said.

Update: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name Louis Agassiz.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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